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Vocalic patterns & BrSc

From:Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>
Date:Wednesday, May 8, 2002, 5:23
Prompted by recent discussions on reforming BrSc (so I can give it a proper
name  :)  and by some other recent discussions, I've done a little
investigating while having a rest from the list.  I've been looking at
vowel patterns in different languages.

There can be little doubt that the 'classical' pattern of having front~
back contrasts at the high & mid levels but not at the low level, is the
most frequent and widespread, i.e.
               /i/ ---- /u/
                |        |
                |        |
               /e/ ---- /o/
                \       /
                 \     /

It's found not only in Spanish, Modern Greek, Russian and Czech, but also
in many of the African languages, native American languages, Japanese and
the languages of Pacific islands.  If BrSc were simply proposed as yet
another IAL, then IMO I'd be foolish not to adopt it.  Apart from Volapük
for a very brief period, no con-IAL that has adopted a different system
seems to fared well.

"Old-style" BrSc, indeed, basically had this pattern, supplemented by two
diphthongs: /aj/ & /aw/.  But the phonology, if you recall, restricted the
total number of morphemes to somewhere between 2 to 2.5 thousand.

But BrSc has two other aims: (a) morphemic self-segregation, and (b)
compactness/brevity.  The former has little direct bearing on vowel
patterning but the latter does if I adopt a Dirk-like 'Roman syllabary'
(which might be seen as a 'half-way' house between a 'normal natlang' and

Dirk's syllabary (which I've always found attractive) means only one
contrast of tongue height: high ~ low.  In Dirk's original scheme there was
a three dimensional contrast at both hights, thus:
              /i/ --- /1/ --- /u/
               |       |       |
               |       |       |
              /e/ --- /a/ --- /o/

Now I find, in fact, that 3x2 distributions like this seem pretty uncommon.
Indeed I could find only one - Sranan (or Taki-Taki), which has, I
              /i/ --- /y/ --- /u/
               |       |       |
               |       |       |
              /e/ --- /a/ --- /o/

I wonder if the high 'central' vowel should not rather be [}] (I would be
content to accept a vowel with [1] or [{] as allophones).

But I find the 2x2 vowel system, which I first proposed in my modified
version of Dirk's syllabary, rather more widespread, being found - I'm told
- in Apache, Fox, Shawnee and other native langs of north & south America,
              /i/ ----- /u/
               |         |
               |         |
              /e/ ----- /o/

According to some theorists, the same pattern was also found in
Proto-Germanic.  What is certain is that Etruscan had a similar 2x2 pattern:
              /i/ ----- /u/
               |         |
               |         |
              /e/ ----- /a/

....and the (probably) related Lemnian also appears to have had:
              /i/ ----- /o/
               |         |
               |         |
              /e/ ----- /a/

(Tho one cannot be 100% certain in this case; it may simply be fortuitous
that no inscription with /u/ survived.)

It seems to me that if I do adopt a Dirk-like 'Roman syllabary' in any
reformed BrSc, I must chose between a 3x2 or a 2x2 distribution.  I am not
persuaded that high (or even mid) central vowels are a "good thing" in an
IAL; and the apparent rarity of the 3x2 pattern also dissuades me.  It
seems the 2x2 pattern is is, or has been, more widespread, being found in
both the new and old worlds.

All comments or observations, whether pro or con, are invited ;)


The median nature of language is an epistemological
commonplace.  So is the fact that every general
statement worth making about language invites a
counter-statement or antithesis.
                                 GEORGE STEINER.


Pavel Iosad <pavel_iosad@...>
Peter Clark <peter-clark@...>
Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>